Friday, September 12, 2014

Parallels Between Sports and Environmental Journalism

The Philadelphia Inquirer published a great piece earlier this week on the controversy pertaining to the Baltimore Colts' Ray Rice and the NFL's handling of domestic violence in general and this case in particular. He talks about the incestuous relationship between sports reporters and their sources.

As I was reading his article, I was struck by the parallels to coverage of global warming. How a small group of same-thinking journalists missed the atmospheric science story of the decade in 2009 when Climategate broke and continue to miss it in large part to this day. So, with apologies to Mike Sielski, the author of the Inquirer piece, I have modified it a bit.

There's a marvelous scene in the film All the President's Men in which the Washington Post's editors are holding their afternoon meeting, reviewing the day's most important stories and deciding which ones merit front-page placement, when the topic of Watergate  Climategate comes up. It is still early in the scandal's evolution, and one of the editors argues that "no one cares" about its latest development. Besides, the editor says, if Watergate Climategate were really a big deal was proof the global warming scare is being exaggerated, we'd put our most seasoned political environmental reporters on the story. We wouldn't keep two nobodies like Woodward and Bernstein on it.
There's a valuable lesson in that scene that applies to the three-pronged news that broke Monday:'s revelation of the security video that showed Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer-Rice, who was then his fiancee and is now his wife; the Ravens' subsequent decision to release Rice; and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's subsequent decision to suspend Rice from the league indefinitely.
Activists or journalists? One look at top of their website reveals the answer.
The lesson has to do with journalistic independence and integrity, with an understanding of the relationships between professional sports leagues and teams and the media climate science and scientists and the environmental journalists who cover them and profit from them, and with a jaundiced eye toward how media reveal and present suppress information and why.
After that dramatized meeting, the Post exposes Watergate's full depth and breadth in large part because it did not assign its plugged-in people to cover the scandal. The editors keep Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the story, even though at the time the two reporters were outsiders with few ties to or loyalties within Washington's climate sciences' incestuous political culture.

In case you believe I am exaggerating the situation in climate 'science' and climate 'journalism', let me give you an example from Climategate. The story below is from December 12, 2009:
LONDON (AP) — E-mails stolen from climate scientists show they stonewalled skeptics and discussed hiding data — but the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked, according to an exhaustive review by The Associated Press.
The casual reader would probably not question the story. But, they should have. Who was one of the principle figures in Climategate? Associated Press' own environmental reporter and global warming true believer, Seth Borenstein!

Below is one of the Climategate emails. It was sent July 23, 2009, less than five months before Borenstein wrote the above story -- without mentioning his involvement -- about Climategate. The "hype" is a peer-reviewed paper that indicates global warming might not be as big a problem as some thought at the time (a paper validated by subsequent events).
Not only does Borenstein seek out instructions how to handle the 'hype' (i.e., the possibility people will not believe global warming is a catastrophic problem), he is seeking it from three of the principals in Climategate: Kevin Trenberth, Gavin Schmidt, and Michael Mann who would turn out to be at the very center of the Climategate vortex. Mann is currently in court over his climate communications. 
Borenstein writing this story was about the same as having President Richard Nixon's press secretary write Associated Press' stories about Watergate!
Unfortunately, not much has changed since 2009. Economic pressures in the industry has caused the number of environmental reporters to shrink and world temperatures still have not risen. The graph below represents earth's temperatures from the month Climategate broke to the present. 

But, it is not just temperature reporting. Remember when we were told, right after Katrina,

MIT's Kerry Emanuel. James West
On July 31 of that year [2005], MIT hurricane specialist Kerry Emanuel published a paper in the journal Nature suggesting that hurricanes had gotten much stronger over the past three decades, likely prompted by a rise in sea-surface temperatures that, in turn, is directly tied to global warming. 

In November, 2009, when Climategate broke, it had been four years since a major (≥ Cat. 3) hurricane had hit the United States.

Fast forward to September, 2014: Still no major hurricane. We are now approaching nine years without a major hurricane striking the United States! We have broken the previous record interval without a major hurricane by nearly three years! There is zero evidence hurricanes are getting worse. How could they? The earth has not warmed since at least 1998. 
There is still a great story to be told about the exaggeration of the global warming threat. Perhaps, like Woodward and Bernstein in 1972, an ambitious reporter will do some real reporting in 2014 or 2015. But, I wouldn't hold my breath.

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